Cities raising pay as economic recession begins

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

The depths of the economic shutdown really haven’t registered in the halls of local government.

Mountain View and Palo Alto city governments are each poised to give unionized employees pay raises.
Never mind that unemployment is expected to reach Great Depression levels, that small businesses are permanently closing and that residents are struggling for food.

In Palo Alto, union workers are up for automatic raises on July 1. They have contracts negotiated previously that have raises scheduled to start July 1.

• SEIU will get a 2% bump that will cost the city $1.2 million;

• The police union will get a 3% raise at a cost of $2.2 million;

• And firefighters will get a 3% hike at a cost of $1.4 million.

Publicly, here’s how this will play out. The city will say it can’t change these contracts or it risks getting hauled into court by the unions. Behind the scenes, the city can tell the unions that if they don’t give up these raises, the city will make up the difference by laying off union workers.

The unions could make a smart move and say they’re giving up the raises because they believe they should share in the sacrifices everybody is making right now. But the more radical elements in the unions will shoot that down, saying they want the money now — and they don’t care how greedy it makes them look. The radicals will carry the day.

All of this spells trouble for incumbent city council members running for re-election this fall. They don’t want to be known as a council member who voted for pay raises while people were losing their jobs, losing their homes and businesses.

Another option is that the city could say that its declaration of emergency for the coronavirus allows it to cancel or amend union contracts without the consent of the union. Frankly, I don’t know if that’s legal or not, but it’s worth exploring.

Labor’s influence

In many California cities, union bosses call the shots. The council members are afraid of the unions because they fund their campaigns and provide campaign workers. That’s how our state and municipal pension liabilities became so large — politicians beholden to the unions made promises that were unaffordable.

In Palo Alto, the role of unions in local politics has faded. After voters rejected a couple of firefighter union-backed ballot initiatives in 2010 and 2011, labor seemed to disappear from the Palo Alto political scene. The South Bay Labor Council doesn’t even do council endorsements in Palo Alto anymore, though they make them in other Santa Clara County cities.

In Mountain View, labor still gets involved in campaigns and backs candidates. On Tuesday, Mountain View council will review a package of pay raises proposed by City Manager Kimbra McCarthy that call for 3% for most city employees except fire and police, who are getting 4%.

One of the reasons McCarthy gave for the raises was that it would help the city attract and retain good employees. That may be a good argument when the economy is strong, but it doesn’t fly during a recession.

Well-paid employees

How badly are “cost of living” raises needed in Mountain View? Go to TransparentCalifornia.com, a website where you can find the pay of all public employees in California. At the top of Mountain View’s list is police Sgt. Jose Vieyra, whose total pay and benefits in 2018 were $453,694.

No. 2 in Mountain View was Ted Vandenberg, a fire batalion chief, whose total compensation (pay and benefits) was $453,469 in 2018.

Mountain View had 11 employees in the $400,000 Club in 2018. There were another 66 employees in the $300,000 Club.

A few other salaries on the Mountain View list caught my eye. Performing Arts Manager William Whisler’s total comp was $253,910. Lori Topley, the solid waste program manager, was listed at $248,563. The assistant to the city manager, Kimberly Thomas, had total compensation of $234,015. And Street & Landfill Closure Manager Rene Munoz clocked in at $214,124.

Time to get serious

The cities in the mid-Peninsula have got to come to grips with how bad this recession will become. They ought to expect their sales tax and hotel tax revenues will drop dramatically, and a year from now, property tax revenues will crash too.

To keep operating, cities will have to follow the lead of Stanford Health Care, which cut pay 20% across the board. Our cities have to look at pay cuts and layoffs. Real layoffs, not laying off an employee who stays on the payroll by taking an unfilled but budgeted position.

It’s time for our cities to face up to the fact that this recession will be brutal, and this isn’t the time for raises and business as usual.

• • •

Let families choose

Some families in the Palo Alto Unified and Sequoia Union High School districts are upset over the switch from A-F grades to pass/fail.

Many families feel their kids will have a disadvantage applying to colleges because they didn’t have the opportunity to show they were capable of getting straight As.

Pass/fail supporters say it’s not fair to give A-F grades for online classes that aren’t as robust as those that would have been offered in the classroom. They also say poor kids won’t do as well if they don’t have good internet access at home.

The Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District has come up with a solution to this dilemma — let the student choose between A-F grades or pass/fail.

The Los Gatos-Saratoga district reached out to families and listened to them before making this decision. Palo Alto school officials, which presented their decision as a fait accompli to district families, should take note.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

Previous columns

April 20, 2020 — Time to carefully reopen California

April 13, 2020 — Stay-at-home order points to traffic solution

March 16, 2020 — Let’s find ways to help one another

March 2, 2020 — This illness might just surprise you

8 Comments

  1. You described the situation in SEIU Local 521 to a “T”. I think many members would forego a raise at this time, given the pandemic. But Margaret Adkins will never allow this to go to a vote. Ask her about it.

  2. PA Council won’t stop these raises. They’ve already got an excuse: they were negotiated and approved long ago (actually last year) and we can’t change them. Council is much more likely to close a library or cut services before they’d stop a raise for union workers.

  3. Mr Price, I agree with your editorial, especially about how serious cuts need to be made now, but it’s going to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the Palo Alto City Council. They plan to give away a million in city funds to businesses. Council members are apparently strategizing this giveaway in secret meetings with business owners. That doesn’t sound like a city council that is very concerned about conserving scarce city funds.

  4. WOW. So start laying people off so they lose their income, then their homes, never mind their healthcare for themselves and their families. Even if a bargaining unit gave back the “raise” that is a small amount of money and wouldn’t stop a City from laying people off. All the people you point out in Mountain View are in high positions. Why don’t you go through and look at people who work in the SEIU unit in Palo Alto? Many of those folks are frontline staff making 50-70K in salary and barely making it in the Bay Area. The other side is this: if times are good to really good do City’s hand out raises that aren’t bargained? NO. Bonuses? NO…so why turn down the money and still find 1/3 of their unit laid off? the people that are left standing end up doing twice the work, for a 3% raise. Is it “greedy” of the City to make employees do more work for less pay and expect them to be happy with that? It’s easy to say no raises and lay people off. When the stay home order ends, go meet the people that work for the City and talk to them-not the Fire chief or waste manager or assistant city manager. Go talk to the maintenance workers, recreation staff, planners, inspectors who work day to day with the public and find out what they do and how they benefit the City they work in. Then tell me they should punt their raise and the City should start laying off people.

  5. @BesideMyself says “Why don’t you go through and look at people who work in the SEIU unit in Palo Alto? Many of those folks are frontline staff making 50-70K in salary and barely making it in the Bay Area.”

    Fair question.

    I went to the TransparentCalifornia.com website and put in a few names of SEIU members on the city payroll. These are 2018 figures for total pay and benefits.

    Henry Richards III, lineperson, $212,466.57
    Raul Silva, facilities maintenance, $211,856
    Brianna Quezada, dispatcher, $165,211.78
    Juan Esprio, lineperson, $181,461.74
    Joseph Luttrell, dispatcher, $187,972.48

    Couldn’t find anybody making 50K or 75K.

    • Not sure if you looked at total benefits or just salary with no overtime….and dozens of pages, I can understand not looking so hard. Police dispatchers make a lot in any City and won’t be laid off as Police is ALWAYS seen as essential staff. Here is a few folks in SALARY who will be the first to go when layoffs strike:
      SALARY (no benefits included)
      Jose Barajas Park Maint Person $65,897.64
      Joshua Berta Program Assistant I $66,472.06
      Cyrus Cary Program Assistant II $69,908.80

      Perhaps you should have looked harder instead of the top end like the author

  6. I don’t want to get in the middle of this food fight, but it should be pointed out that “Observer” said he was listing pay + benefits while “BesideMyself” is just listing pay. In other words, BesideMyself is pulling a fast one here and is comparing apples to oranges to make it seem city employees are underpaid.

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